By Sarah Osman
The Chair asserts that professors have lives outside the university and they are demanding and draining.
The Chair, begins streaming on Netflix this Friday.
Having worked in education for several years now, I can confirm that the problematic world presented in Netflix’s new comedy The Chair is eerily accurate. The show is focused specifically on the doings in a university, but many of the conflicts in the story line plague teachers across the board. Budget cuts, political plotting, power grabs, racism, teachers who simply refuse to join the 21st century: these are problems that just about every classroom faces (and now, with the added bonus of figuring out how to deal with COVID! Oh joy!) Because it taps so well into contemporary angst, The Chair turns out to be a hilarious (and painfully accurate) watch for anyone who has worked in education (and even those who haven’t).
The series follows Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), the first woman — and first woman of color — to be appointed as the chair of the English Department at the fictional Pembroke University. Where is Pembroke located? Unclear, but judging from the constant presence of snow, towering pine trees, and Georgian style buildings, a good guess would be the Northeast. Because of the concern with under-enrolled classes, it’s obvious that Pembroke must be a private university (public institutions have the opposite problem). Today, private universities (especially smaller ones) often have to weather just as many — if not more — budget cuts as their public counterparts. The result can be that professors are let go or forced into early retirement. Or, in some cases, entire departments must be disbanded.
This is the predicament Ji-Yoon has to contend with. Her department isn’t attracting enough students, so something’s got to go. In this case, it’s someones, selected by the dean: three elderly white “dinosaurs” who have been lecturing since the dawn of time and reject the changes Ji-Yoon puts forward. She doesn’t want to fire these professors, but her good intentions are met with snide remarks from the trio regarding her gender and/or race. The remarks only get worse as Ji-Yoon supports her younger (and untenured) Black colleague, Dr. Yasmin McKay (Nana Menash), whose scandalous class, Sex and the Novel, draws far more students than a colleague’s stodgy Melville seminar. This colleague constantly mispronounces Yasmin’s name (he calls her “Jasmine”) and, when visiting her class, interrupts her. These subtle racist mico-agressions highlight why people of color have a difficult time feeling accepted in academic institutions. Even though we [whites] have become more “woke,” a university career remains a challenge if you are a person of color.
In addition to this mess, Ji-Yoon is also trying to help her hot mess of a colleague and on-again/off-again lover, Professor Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), who is grieving the death of his wife. Duplass and Oh generate plenty of charming chemistry; they seem to be perfect for each other. Duplass, who hasn’t been seen on screen as often as his brother, Mark Duplass, supplies perfect comedic timing, from the physical (falling down into bushes) to the intellectual (going on horribly inappropriate rants in class). His character’s descent into chaos is funny, but it is also at times heart-wrenching — especially for those who have experienced grief. Ji-Yoon and Dobson’s relationship is at the heart of The Chair, especially the scenes in which the pair spend time with Ji-Yoon’s eccentric daughter. Dobson and Ji-Yoon are two broken people who need to lean on each other to survive in a world that sees them as disposable.
Ji-Yoon comes off as a highly sympathetic character. She is ambitious, professional, and intelligent but she has to contend with her own complexity as well as that of others. She has to deal with her difficult father, who wants her to get back together with an ex and have a proper family, as well as with her adopted daughter, who is coming to terms with learning that she is adopted. The latter is given some hilarious moments, such as asking Dobson if he wants to look at a book with some naked pictures in it. She also has profoundly poignant scenes, when she needs to be reassured of her mother’s love. By incorporating Ji-Yoon’s complicated personal life, The Chair asserts that professors have lives outside the university and they are demanding and draining. In many college films, the focus is on the private lives of students or on the wisdom dispensed by a sage professor. It’s refreshing to see a show that understands that professors are more than grading machines or grant generators. This is not a bad time to be reminded that teachers, too, have lives.
The Chair is too narrow in scope to properly target the many woes of college academia. Weirdly, there are no adjunct faculty members at Pembroke; ignoring the exploitation of an underpaid and overworked segment of the educational food chain is a missed opportunity. (Although this may be fodder for an entirely different show). What’s more, this English department never interacts with other departments, which is rather unusual considering how interdisciplinary the subject has become. Still, perhaps these topics will be introduced in the future. Each episode is 30 minutes long and the first season is made up of only six episodes. Who knows where the series will go in its second season? Right now, the comedy is confining itself to matters pertaining to the new chair, and that makes perfect sense. Given that there are so many festering weeds in the groves of academe, it is wise to limit the acreage.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, North Carolina. In addition to writing for The Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, The Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos.